THE ROMANCE IS BACK: at Trattoria di Monica.
I can do North End nostalgia with the best of them. It’s all yuppies now. The old spirit is gone. Nothing is like it used to be. But then I walk into a tiny restaurant full of big flavors, and the romance is back. Trattoria di Monica is still mostly under the radar because it’s an offshoot of Monica’s (now on Richmond Street), along with Monica’s Mercato (on Salem Street). But this time the Mendoza brothers (Monica was their mother) have truly hit their stride. The trattoria is a teensy storefront with what looks to be an abbreviated menu of appetizers and pasta-based entrées. In the old North End tradition, this is augmented inside with a long list of daily specials, and even blackboard specials on wine. Also in the old North End tradition, the prices run up on the appetizer and wine specials, but not badly on the entrées. So it’s a value restaurant if you can stick with menu appetizers or go straight to the entrées and stick to a glass of wine from the list. As I found on two visits, however, splurges are sometimes worth it.
For example, a recent special, an antipasto appetizer ($20), featured three kinds of fresh mozzarella, each paired with a cured meat and a vegetable. One revelation for me was mozzarella burrata, with a mozzarella center and fresh cream. A hunk of this with Genoa salami and chunks of roast eggplant was a slice of heaven. But so was a piece of smoked fresh mozzarella with mortadella and tomato, as well as a piece of buffalo mozzarella with prosciutto and roasted red pepper. You could split this appetizer among two or three people to justify the expense. I would hate to have missed it.
On the other end, a special bruschetta ($15) had only a couple of toasts topped with excellent fresh tomatoes, cheese, and basil — not that much better than the $6 and $9 regular-menu bruschettas. You will want some appetizers, as the breadbasket is a crusty Tuscan bread (a little more salty than in Tuscany), and the olive-oil cruet is nothing special.
With entrées, the price gap is smaller, and the specials have more protein. Almost all the pasta is homemade and exceptional. Fettuccine al nero ($23), for instance, is black-ink pasta with an unmistakable homemade chew, done up in a creamy pesto sauce (a genuine regional specialty, not an American elaboration) with lots of shrimp. If it’s available, go off the menu with a recent special on veal bracioletini ($25); the underlying pasta is fat, soft spirals like blimp spaghetti, as comforting as the best gnocchi. The veal roll has a lot of garlic added to the cheese inside, but what really makes this dish unusual is that prosciutto is wrapped around the outside, so it crisps like bacon and better flavors the marinara sauce in which it’s braised. Richer, still, is the tomato-onion-pepper sauce produced by a slow-cooked lamb-shank special ($25). Here the pasta was tortellini stuffed with potatoes and a little sage, like glorified pierogies.
The wines on the blackboard can be very good, but the glass prices will shock some people. A recent glass of 2003 Cumaro by Umani Ronchi was $17! This is a top-level red, but from part of Abruzzo that we don’t usually look to for top-level wines. I think it’ll be a pretty great wine in a few years. At the moment, though, the ’03 has a nose with a lot of dust on the fruit. Still, the flavor is large, warm, and mighty astringent. Much better right now was an ’02 merlot from Bastianich ($12/glass), a new producer set up by the family of New York restaurateur and author Lydia Bastianich. This was as fruity and complicated as some very fine merlot wines out of Bordeaux, which perhaps justifies the price. But a glass of Castelluccio “Lunaria” sauvignon blanc ($14/glass) was clean, tart, and lemony — and not a value. The regular wine list mixes in wines from around the world with Italian bottles, and the glass prices range from $7 to $10. Espresso ($2.25) is a relative bargain, and very well made in both regular and decaf.
Breaking with North End tradition, Trattoria di Monica has several desserts, which it claims are also homemade. This is certainly true of the unique Nutella bread pudding ($6), a rather homogeneous pie slice of pudding, but wonderfully marbled with the hazelnut-chocolate spread. The cannoli ($6) might well be homemade, as both the fried shells and the ricotta filling were very fresh tasting.
Service on a couple of slow weeknights was good but not rapid, with some nice touches, such as the complimentary glass of prosecco we received one night. There were pauses between the appetizers and entrées, but the entrées were so exciting we didn’t mind. The background music, barely noticeable, is deeply retro. And candles grace each table, which prevents the small, bare-brick room of 16 seats from seeming too small. Apart from that, the décor comes mostly from framed art, with a line-drawn portrait that starts to resemble Jimi Hendrix after a while. This, like the music, must be personally meaningful to the chef-owners, since the ’60s and ’70s in America are not usually part of the nostalgia of the North End, nor of Argentina, where the Mendozas had a few intervening generations.